Before we begin, take a look at this:
It’s a holiday commercial for the Gap, featuring rapper Common and a bunch of breakdancers. Even for those of you who skip through ads nowadays, it’s been hard to miss; not only is it on just about every three seconds, but it features Common clumsily equating “the hood” with Gap’s hooded sweatshirt. Painful stuff, to be sure.
But whenever we see it, we don’t just roll our eyes and shrug it off. We get a little fired up–the same way we get fired up when we see those Nintendo Wii ads featuring Hawthorne Heights, or Daniel Powter pimping a Chevy truck in Rolling Stone. These are all artists about which we could not care less, and yet they each prompted us to utter something we haven’t said since 1995:
“What a sellout.”
You read that right–we said sellout. For our younger readers, “selling out” is the charmingly antiquated notion that a musician diminishes his or her work by aligning themselves with a commercial entity. It’s an idea most hotly debated during the alt-rock supermarket-sweep of the early ’90s, when the indie scene was cherry-picked by the major labels. Back then, artists thought hard and long over whether they should endorse a sneaker, or lend a song to a soundtrack, or even appear in Time. Such navel-gazing may have been a little self-important, but at least the gazers cared about maintaining a modicum of credibility.
And then the ’90s ended, and a whole bunch of bands got dropped without making a dime. Suddenly, the profit-scorching machinations of the biz became clear, and we all became a little more forgiving of a cheesy advertorial or a song being used in the Happy Gilmore trailer. Everyone’s gotta eat, we thought, and we saw enough bands break up over money problems to know that credibility is a bank-breaking burden. Sometimes, a little sponsorship keeps the overhead down.
But somehow, in the last few years, this casual acceptance became less of a slippery slope, and more of a Wile E. Coyote-sized perch, one in which we’ve all been too willing to jump off. No one’s going to deny that Internet piracy and label mergers have made ancillary sources of income more important than ever, but we’ve become way too forgiving: Jay-Z starts hawking Budweiser Select and NASCAR, and we turn a blind eye. 3 Doors Down take a two-page spread for Verizon Wireless, and we forget we ever saw it (for numerous reasons). These aren’t little indie acts trying to clear next month’s rent; they’re big-name acts that like to cover up their greed by talking up their “branding” and “cross-synergy platforms.” And even the ones that aren’t commanding big mechanical-royalty checks should at least do a little soul-searching: Hey, Common–you know what? If you really need a cringe-inducing Gap spot to sustain your career, maybe you shouldn’t have a career at all.
Look, we’re not suggesting that everyone go live in a cave with Ian MacKaye, holding ten-hour debates on whether or not to appear on the fifth stage at the Warped Tour. We’re just asking for a little less complacency on the part of the fans, and a little more outrage. Sure, everyone’s gotta eat–but do they have to be so goddamn gluttonous?